Afghanistan + 1 more

Afghans prepare for return from Pakistan's troubled border area

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BANNU, Pakistan, June 14 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency will begin issuing repatriation documents to Afghans from North Waziristan on Wednesday following a registration process that showed 83 percent of the residents of refugee camps there wish to return to Afghanistan.

UNHCR teams had visited the camps in the troubled border region in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas last week after a government announcement that all the refugee camps in North Waziristan would close at the end of June.

Afghans in the camps were offered a choice of returning to Afghanistan under UNHCR's voluntary repatriation programme or relocating to an existing site elsewhere in Pakistan that will be announced later this month by the government of Pakistan.

"The mission to North Waziristan by the UNHCR teams went very smoothly and some 83 percent of all the families in the camps opted to repatriate, which is very encouraging," said Indrika Ratwatte, head of repatriation for UNHCR in Pakistan.

The final count showed that 6,471 families were interviewed, with 5,343 choosing to repatriate and 1,128 deciding to relocate. Families average about six members each. Before the operation, about half of an estimated 60,000 Afghans in North Waziristan were believed to be living in the camps.

The government announced the closing of the camps because of ongoing security problems in the area adjoining Afghanistan, where the army says it is battling militants linked to the former Taliban regime who are accused of attacks against the new government in Kabul.

UNHCR has supported the decision, noting that the unrest in the area has made it very difficult to provide services and that Afghans who do not wish to repatriate are being offered the option to remain in Pakistan

The UNHCR teams who visited North Waziristan last week recorded the families who wished to repatriate and gave the heads of household a "temporary card" to bring this week to Bannu, in a nearby part of North West Frontier Province.

Heads of households who are repatriating should visit Bannu between June 15 and 29 without their families to be registered for a Voluntary Repatriation Form (VRF) that will entitle them to assistance upon arrival in Afghanistan. The head of household must bring a picture showing all members of the family who are repatriating.

Each individual in the family will be eligible for travel assistance ranging from $6 to $30, depending on the distance to the destination, plus $12 to help with reintegration at home.

After receiving the VRF, the heads of household will immediately return to North Waziristan and proceed with their families to the Ghulam Khan crossing point into Afghanistan.

They must go to Khost, where all family members over the age of six years will go through an iris test at the UNHCR encashment centre to ensure they have not previously received repatriation assistance. The returning families from North Waziristan must take the iris test by the end of June to receive assistance.

The government is assisting the repatriation process, with North Waziristan administrators issuing notes to all heads of household asking authorities to assist travel to Bannu to receive the repatriation documents and then the move by the families across the border to Afghanistan. The government notes are valid until the end of June.

The government of Pakistan announced last month that, in line with the presidential directive of 2004, it intends to close all refugee camps in FATA soon after the closure of North Waziristan's camps, but has not given the precise dates.

It has also announced that two camps in Balochistan - Jungle Piralizai and Girdi Jungle - will close this summer, with residents again given the options of repatriation with UNHCR or relocation to another existing site.

UNHCR has assisted 2.4 million Afghans to return from Pakistan since the voluntary repatriation programme started in 2002. So far this year, more than 122,000 Afghans have gone home from Pakistan and UNHCR estimates that up to 400,000 could repatriate by the end of 2005.

By Jack Redden
UNHCR Pakistan